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When Darrell Finch applied for his real estate license in South Carolina in July 2009, all he had to do to prevent state regulators from looking into his past was check a box marked "no."
Had Finch, the form asked, ever been convicted or pleaded no contest to a crime other than a minor traffic offense?
The phrasing of that question allowed Finch -- a former Hilton Head Island real estate agent charged this month in connection with the theft of jewelry from several homes for sale on the island -- to tell the truth without having to disclose that he had been arrested less than a year earlier in Florida and charged with grand theft and fraud.
But regulators in South Carolina didn't know about the charges pending in Florida. South Carolina doesn't require people applying for real estate licenses to submit to a criminal background check -- unlike North Carolina, Florida, Georgia and many other states.
Local Realtors and a state trade group say that must change to bring South Carolina in line with other states and better protect homeowners and the integrity of their entire industry.
"Something has to be done to give us all the assurance that we don't have convicted felons walking around with locked box keys," said Realtor Bob Clarkson, president of The Alliance Group Realty on Hilton Head.
SLIPPING THROUGH THE CRACKS
Finch was arrested July 13 by the Beaufort County Sheriff's Office on a fugitive-of-justice warrant from the Savannah-Chatham Metro Police Department. The warrant accused him of selling jewelry that was missing from several homes for sale on Hilton Head to a pawn shop in Savannah.
While in jail, the Sheriff's Office added a misdemeanor charge of receiving stolen goods after another piece of the stolen jewelry was found in Finch's car.
That arrest wasn't his first brush with the law.
While a licensed real estate agent in South Carolina, Finch was placed on probation in Florida and Georgia for crimes he had committed in those states between April 2008 and August 2010, according to court and police records.
Florida records indicate Finch was sentenced to three years' probation in November 2010 after pleading guilty to offenses that occurred between April 2008 and October 2009. Things were going much better for him on Hilton Head, though: That same month CH2 Magazine named him one of its "Bachelors of the Year" in a photo spread depicting him in the African bush country.
Finch's Florida crimes, all committed in Pinellas County, include four felony counts of grand theft, two counts of credit card fraud, one count of trafficking in stolen property and one count of failure to appear in court, according to the Florida Department of Corrections.
Less than a year later, in February 2011, he pleaded guilty to two counts of theft by taking after being accused by the Richmond County (Ga.) Sheriff's Office of buying two Rolex watches, valued at $1,500 each, from a jewelry store in Augusta, Ga. using checks written on a closed bank account in August 2010.
Finch was sentenced to probation in Georgia and Florida while working as an associate broker at Re/Max Island Realty, based on the timeline in his LinkedIn profile.
Re/Max had hired Finch in September 2010, the same month the firm helped him reactivate his South Carolina real estate license. His license had been inactivated by the state Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation at the behest of a firm where he'd first worked after coming to Hilton Head, according to LLR records. The company had filed paperwork to inactivate Finch's license about two weeks after Georgia authorities issued warrants for his arrest on the theft charges, LLR records show.
Re/Max Island Realty broker-in-charge Maria Skrip has declined to say whether she knew about Finch's criminal past when he was hired, but has confirmed he no longer works for the company. Skrip has returned Finch's license to LLR officials, who declared it inactive June 21, according to an agency spokeswoman.
On June 30, Finch filed paperwork to maintain his license's inactive status and paid the state's $75 renewal fee, according to LLR records. That allowed the license to stay current in LLR's files in the event he wants to reactivate it.
REALTORS: A CHANGE NEEDED
Local Realtors and a state trade group say it should not be left up to an applicant to decide whether to disclose a criminal past on the application.
In light of Finch's arrest and suspected connection to the recent island thefts, the Hilton Head Area Association of Realtors will join Realtors across the state in pushing for change.
"This matter has been very disappointing and upsetting for our profession," Jean Beck, the group's executive vice president, said in an email. "...(W)e have begun to work with the S.C. Realtor Association to advocate for full background checks to be administrated by the (LLR) before a real estate license is issued."
The last meaningful attempt at changing state regulations floundered in 2007, said Nick Kremydas, CEO of the S.C. Realtor Association.
Kremydas said the bill, authored by Rep. Chip Huggins, R-Columbia, would have mandated background checks for new licensees.
"After having passed the House and Senate, the bill died in conference committee," Kremydas said. "Since then, (we) have been working with the S.C. Real Estate Commission on a comprehensive rewrite of real estate license law that will better serve and protect consumers."
Kremydas also said the group will ask state legislators to again address the issue during its next legislative session in January.
Some local Realtors are not waiting for the legislature to act. They will perform background checks on current and future associate brokers.
Realtor Bob Clarkson said that makes sense.
"We, as brokers, have a responsibility to the public to check our people out and supervise them," Clarkson said. "These are people who represent not only our company, but they represent our industry."
Follow reporter Patrick Donohue at twitter.com/ProtectServeBft.